World Literature Today always packs an exciting table of contents, one that makes me want to spring up off my couch and catch the first international flight. I see the shining achievement of WLT in the editors’ ability to balance what is innovative and cutting edge with what is well established and relevant. Its unique content distinguishes it from most mainstream literary magazines, giving it vitality and spunk. This special double issue treats photography as a modern narrative form. Featuring twenty-one photographers, the spread beautifully illuminates many intersections between literature and photography.
The photography special is simply stunning. It brings into conversation some of the top-working photographers alive today. Beautifully constructed by Guest Editor Yousef Khanfar, this feature is thorough (providing approximately four large images per photographer), well composed, and enhanced by artist interviews and commentary for all included photographers. Khanfar, an award-winning author and photographer himself, fleshes out the relationship between the photographer and the writer and the language their mediums share:
The beauty of photography’s language is that it has no rules and follows no laws. There is no need for grammar or punctuation. There are no worries about stubborn commas, stepchild semicolons, or hunchback parentheses. Style is out the window, and personal taste is welcomed at the lens’s door. No need to tie your tongue in pronunciation but let your eyes sashay into images with the same accent. And as the writer’s life sometimes hangs on a comma, the photographer’s life hangs on a moment.
Throughout, the photos themselves are bolstered by the text that surrounds them. A deeper conversation between the photographers’ images and their words amplifies our experience. Lois Greenfield’s stunning compositions sit just beside her discussion of the interplay of movement and time in her work. Flipping back and forth between the two, we get a glimpse of her work through her eyes as she fleshes out the tension she perceives between dance and photography.
The artists presented are extremely varied, from Jacko Vassilev, who grew up in communist Bulgaria and whose images burst with humanity and vulnerability, to nature artists like Robert Glenn Ketchum, and to Lisa Kristine, who had to wait until dark to take portraits of slaves in Ghana by candlelight to ensure their safety. One of the most dizzying and intricate presentations is the Moroccan feminist movement expressed through Lalla A. Essaydi’s henna portraits. Phil Borges’s “Tibet: Culture on the Edge” does spectacular things with color and engages in the real fear that Tibetan culture is disappearing under China’s regulations.
Angela Bacon-Kidwell’s writing invites us in—to her photos, her personal philosophies, and the unpretentious web that merges her life with her son and the world of her art. Ami Vitale defends her unique decision to include a mental hospital in her photojournalism coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This issue brings us the rare experience of hearing photographers share their stories in images and words.
Beyond the feature, this issue’s interview with Scottish travel writer William Dalrymple is an ambitious, engaging conversation. Taking on the whole genre of travel writing, it discusses at length the pervasive genre stereotypes. Dalrymple and the interviewer slip in and out of Dalrymple’s work and genre-talk seamlessly. The essays and reviews that bookend the photography sample diverse writing and cool cultural trends. The opening “Notebook” section offers brief introductions to “Financial Crisis Fiction,” recently translated mystery novels, and Contemporary Inuit music from Arctic Canada. And a short essay by Mark Budman uses a personal narrative to frame a serious discussion of political divisions within Ukraine, which he believes are sorely patched by a new television show “Ukraine’s Got Talent.” Though far from the highlight of the issue, this brief essay memorably introduces a fascinating phenomenon.